How Personality Influences Perception

I’ve been playing Dragon Age 2 slightly obsessively recently.  I’ve played it through end-to-end, doing all the side quests and DLC 4 times in the last couple of months (I said obsessively).  There’s a bunch of reasons: the sequel’s out later in the year, and a dead Xbox meant I’d lost my previous save, so obviously I needed at least one save to start off with.  I hadn’t played it in a few years.  I consider it the ne plus ultra of the current generation of computer RPGs.  (The only game I’ve played that remains better is the obvious – Planescape: Torment.  Obviously, the Mass Effect games are great, too, but DA2 hits just about every note right for me.)  And I didn’t have a lot else to do, apparently.

The game offers 3 “personalities” in its dialogue choices.  Once I’d decided to play it through more than once, I decided I would play it through as each personality type, specifically and exclusively – rather than my usual method , of picking which response felt most appropriate at the time to the character I’d mentally decided I was playing (and yes, I do attempt to play computer RPGs as if they were a “proper” roleplaying game).  What surprised me was how much the game experience felt different as I played with the different personality types.  I definitely had more fun playing it with the “sarcastic/funny” personality option that I did with the “agressive/bit-of-a-dick” personality, and I actually found my opinions of the various companions changing with each play through, even though they remained objectively unchanged. For example I liked Aveline a great deal more when I was playing the “teeth-achingly noble” option than I did as either of the others.  (And indeed, in the game’s tracking of these things she liked me a lot more, too.)

So this got me thinking about LARP.  About the views people develop of other characters, and of the game.  How the game can seem different, when viewed through they eyes of different characters.  I’m not quite talking about bleed here – the phenomenon where ones own emotions can get stirred up by a characters’ and vice-versa – but more about perception.

I see it all the time in a variety of contexts – players who talk about other characters or situations in certain terms that are clearly influenced by their character’s perceptions.  They come to believe that the objective OOC reality of what is going on with the game matches, or is at least closer to, what the character believes IC, and indeed, they can become quite vocal in defending that view as correct, and that anyone who thinks differently is objectively wrong.

The phenomenon is obviously related to bleed, but I don’t think it’s quite the same thing – I regard bleed as a phenomenon where ones IC opinions of someone else’s character influence their opinions of the player, rather than their opinions of the game reality, if that makes sense.  There are a lot of known techniques for encouraging and then dispelling bleed, but there seems to be a bit of an allergy to the idea that a LARP can even have an “objective reality” – because each player experiences it within their own IC-mediated lens, the common suggestion is that there is no “objective fact” in a LARP, which I think is a convenient way of dismissing the issue because it’s quite hard to get to grips with.  (I’m using “issue” rather than problem, because I don’t think it’s a problem per se – it’s an interesting fact of the medium, that I think merits more thought.)

One of the reasons it occupies my thoughts is that as a ref, I feel a strong duty to be fair, by whatever lights “fair” is reckoned with the context of a given LARP.  The idea that an IC-mediated lens might actually colour people’s OOC perceptions of whether or not the events of a game were adjudicated fairly is one that concerns me.  It see it as part of my job to set a baseline “objective reality” of the LARP and to adjudicate with reference to that, when called on to to so. (Perhaps that’s terribly self-aggrandising of me – I know that no player will ever experience that “Objective Reality”, but I feel it should still be there.)

This isn’t just about rules mechanics, either – the games I run tend to revolve around moral themes, and there tend to be in-character consequences for moral transgressions that are not strictly systemised – for example, in Restitution the act of killing was a dreadful crime that carried long term consequences for anyone who did it.  If one character had killed someone utterly consequence-free, that would have been thematically “unfair” as far as the moral universe of the game was constructed.

I’m also aware that I do make mistakes in the moment, ones that I can’t always walk back, so it’s true to say that I am not always “fair”.  So it’s important to me that I develop tools for working out when a player’s IC perceptions are colouring their opinion of my decision making, and when they’ve actually got a point.  At the moment, I don’t really have any other reference than my own judgement.  One to think about anyway…

Technology As A Tool

Just a little bit of generalised thinking out loud.

I was reading an article on the excellent Gaming As Women about the use of mobile phones in LARP which got me thinking.  In the first place it got me thinking that there might be people reading this who don’t know about Gaming As Women, and they bloody ought to, as it’s one of the best gaming blogs out there, so consider this a general reminder of its existence.  In the second, more pertinent place, it got me thinking about how to consider technology as part of setting design.

My last game, Restitution, was set in a place where there was no mobile telephony or internet, and I have to say, I really liked the effect it produced.  It meant that the characters pretty much had to be in proximity to communicate.  There was a certain amount of IC letter writing and suchlike, but if two characters actually wanted to converse, they had to be in the same physical space.

My instinct, up to now, has been to attempt the same thing in my next game – to continue to find ways to ensure that meaningful real-time interaction requires physical proximity.  But I read the article above, and it did rather set me to thinking about ways to use technology to enhance the IC experience – to actually use the very remoteness produced by technology as a storytelling device.

I’ve never been shy about using technology in an administrative manner – all my games have a custom-written on-line downtime system, they often have a forum and private messaging system, and I probably couldn’t run these games half as effectively without them, but I don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about how to use these things as storytelling systems.

Part of the issue, a complicating factor, is that I don’t want to impose too much on my players lives outside of game time.  I don’t want to send them a creepy mysterious text message while they’re having dinner with their significant other – that’s intrusive on their time and others’.  But at the same time, I can’t deny that it would be kind of awesome to ring someone’s phone at a time in, and have an them hear an NPC (or another PC) having a very bad time, somewhere they can’t do anything about it.  Not often, because it’s an inherently disempowering stunt, but maybe once or twice.  And of course there are other tricks that could be pulled that are much less disempowering.

Ideas that have occurred to me while writing this:

  • All IC messaging could be assumed to be taking place in quasi-real time, no exceptions.  Previous games, I have worked on the assumption that it was OK for players to note something like “My character replies immediately, sorry it’s taken me a fortnight, I was busy”.  As much as I want to allow for player convenience, it means that all IC messaging lacks urgency.  You can’t send a messaging along the lines of “if you don’t get back to me within X amount of time, something bad will happen”.  But to allow for jobs/real life, etc, perhaps some kind of compact that there is a way to represent time passing with a less than 1:1 ratio?
  • The messaging is the only IC contact some characters can have outside of time in – ideally the ones who most want to talk in person?  Use it to enforce remoteness and isolation?
  • An agreed window when it is acceptable to message players via phone/email about IC matters with an urgent response window?  Perhaps some kind of “online and available for LARP-matters now” notifier?
  • Technology enabled meta-techniques to represent supernatural powers within the actual time-in are a superb idea, if I can get the toolset together to manage them effectively.
  • All this said: will new players be comfortable giving out their phone number to a ref who may be a more-or-less complete stranger?

What interesting effects/storytelling devices can you think of that we could use technology to produce?

The LARPers vow of Promiscuity

I’m going to deal with another retro LARP-manifesto classic, just so I know I’ve covered it off.  This time it’s a pair of documents, The Manifesto of the Turku School and The LARPers Vow of Chastity.  I’m not going to break them down like I did Dogma 99, I’m just going to flag them up, and then talk about why I don’t like them, which is basically because they’re all about Immersionism.  However, for all I disagree with them I think that, much like the Dogma 99 Manifesto, they provide a great starting point for thinking, and I do encourage reading them.

So Immersionism and Me, then.  Well, basically, I regard Immersionism as selfish.  It is, particularly when taken to the extremes of the Turku school, all about saying “I came here to play this character, and anything that pulls me away from that is bad.  My highest obligation is to my character, which is to say to what is going on in my own head”. It feels like it’s kind of the roleplaying equivalent of Objectivism – elevating the (fictional) self, rather than the group.  (And it therefore doesn’t surprise me that it’s popular with a certain subset of gamers.)

Don’t get me wrong: I know it can be rewarding to look back on a session, and realise that you were thinking as someone else, making decisions that you would never make yourself.  And if that can be done safely, and while meeting one’s obligations to the group, than that’s absolutely brilliant.  But it’s a happy secondary goal, not the primary objective.

To me, the primary goal of LARPing is intrinsically social.  It’s saying  “I came here to share and shape an interactive narrative experience in such a way that the largest number of people have the most amount of fun.  My highest obligation is to ensure that those around me are enjoying themselves.”

I hate the phrase “my character wouldn’t do that”.  I absolutely believe that characters can have an inner life, and can with enough Immersion, suddenly originate new information about themselves in the mind of the player.  That’s fine.  But I also believe that the player is in charge of the character at all times, and that the character can be changed.

An overly-simple example: Character A is holding a gun to the head of Character B. If Character B is executed, it is known that the this will be No Fun for their player, who is up for playing out a fun, dramatic scene where a gun is held to their head, but not for having their character die.  And yet, in the fully-Immersionist school of play, if Character A would pull the trigger, then they should pull the trigger.

Except that Character A is fully under the control of their player.  The player can opt not to pull the trigger, and then work out why Character A didn’t do it later, and in the process discover/invent some new facts about Character A.

And, of course, it doesn’t need to be on this scale.  I’ve seen people (and I don’t exclude myself from this – I have done stupid things I wish I hadn’t in the past) do things that upset other players, ranging from the trivial (slightly inconveniencing of something another player had planned), to the more major (dominating another player’s game experience with their actions, in a way the other player does not enjoy) to the character-death example above, because they were “what their characters would do”.  And it can all be excused, if your highest goal is “Immersion”.

So that’s where I get to with Immersionism: it’s a nice and fun thing, but it does not trump other obligations to the overriding goal of Fun Game.  I’d be very interested in hearing opposing views, because I’m aware that it’s a very popular gaming philosophy, and I’d like to understand the thinking behind why it is considered good a bit better, in a way that the Manifesto’s amusing confrontational style rather fails to get across.

LARP As Safe Space

Nordic LARP Talks just got a bunch of video updates, and I’m making my way through them, but I wanted to flag one up quickly, as it’s a very important topic.  One of the nicest bits of feedback I have ever been given about a game I ran is that players could be confident that they wouldn’t come across racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or anything like that in my games – or at the very least, they could be 99.9% sure that the obnoxious attitude was an entirely IC one.  I was delighted to hear that, because I am absolutely determined that my games should be as much of a safe space as I can make them. I have what I hope are clear policies about harassment and unacceptable behaviour at the time in, and in game-related matters, and it seems to have more or less worked.  I definitely feel the responsibility to make my LARP space as safe as I can pretty keenly.

At the same time, I like what you might call “mature themes”.  I like my LARPs to explore real issues, and that means that they have to deal in a “real” world that isn’t all hugs and puppies.  Violence, as I’ve mentioned, is a feature of these games, often quite extreme violence.  We’ve had abuse victims, and abusers, as characters.  So I am very interested in anyone’s thoughts on ways to manage things so as to be able to include this sort of thing, and still remain a reasonably safe space, so I was immediately drawn to this talk:

This is a talk titled “Ethical Content Management and the Freedom to Create” by Shoshana Kessock.  In it she concludes (among other things) that the maintenance of a “safe” space is a community responsibility, rather than just that of the organisers, and further, that by its very nature, LARP cannot ever be considered a 100% safe space.

I think that’s probably true.  But this talk has got me thinking about what to do to improve for next time.  My mental list is roughly as follows:

  • An “unsafe space” warning – clear notifications of what kind of content may or may not feature in the LARP, to serve both as a warning and a rough code of conduct.
  • Clearer signposting of the harassment policy – in the last game I ran, I had a couple of players not realise it existed.
  • A general reminder to everyone that we’re all collectively responsible for the space.
  • Formally implementing “Brake”, “Cut” and “Hold” as techniques – we haven’t needed them yet, but I’d like my players to know they are there.
  • I’m contemplating a “no IC sexism/racism/homophobia/transphobia/etc” rule, to go along with the OOC rules.

Can anyone suggest anything else I could add?

Seeking Recommendations For A Mood Board

Just in case there’s anyone reading who doesn’t know what a mood board is: it’s basically a collage of images, words, and reference points, used by designers to work up a “feel” for a new project, before they start on actual designs.

I like to use something like them for LARP settings, and I’ve been making notes what I want to reach for with the next game.  I would call them “influences”, but with LARP, everyone brings their own influences in in all sorts of ways, so I find it helpful to think of them as a mood board for the game, rather than influences.  A given NPC might have very specific influences, but the setting has a wider board, if that makes sense?

My previous board had lots of British Children’s television of the 70s and early 80s, fused with paganism, a dash of The Archers, and all the usual supernatural nonsense, and a lot of creepy folk songs and hauntological electronica.  Funnily enough, about six months after I started I was running the game, Scarfolk Council launched, and I instantly recognised it as basically, a hit of the pure stuff.  Taking everything I was aiming at, and turning the creepy-and-weird dial up to the maximum setting.  That gives you the general idea.

So now I’m kind of feeling my way towards I want to do with the next one.  I’m thinking that lots of brutalism, chrome, concrete, a post-war aesthetic, the British modernism of the 50s, would suit – effectively, the stuff we’d think of as retro-futures these days.  Soundtrack to be ambient industrial, lots of heavy machine sounds, clanking and empty spaces.  At the moment, my stalling point is I can’t find the missing pop-culture/fiction link to fuse it with and make it accessible.  Although to be honest given the largely blank looks I got when I went on about the Cosmic Importance of Nigel Kneale, Children of the Stones, The Stone Tape and so on, it’s as much about making them accessible to me – defining an approach to the aesthetics – as it is about giving people an obvious touchstone.

I’m looking for a strain of supernatural fiction that I can fuse with all this concrete and brutalism.  Wondering about Lovecraft, wondering about splatterpunk, finding them both a bit extreme.  Anyone got any clever ideas?  I have just read the latest Dresden Files, but while I do very much enjoy them they’re kind of so generic Urban Fantasy as to be useless in marking out a tone.

Non-supernatural, I’m thinking of something like The Sandbaggers, and its descendant, Queen and Country, and similar, but honestly, they’ve got a similar 70s aesthetic to the one I mentally had last time, so I’m instinctively pulling back.

So, here’s your chance to recommend me fiction.  I’m looking for good supernatural/horror fiction set in 1940s (post-war)/1950s Britain.  Film, TV, radio, book, comic, it doesn’t matter, it just needs to be of the period.  Go!

Dogma 99, Part 5

Last two!  I’ll have to think of something else to talk about next week.

9. Game mechanics are forbidden.

I like it, I like it a lot, but the quote from the follow on in the manifesto is “(rules for the simulation of for instance the use of violence or supernatural abilities are not permitted)”.  It’s expressly aimed at not allowing for the kind of games I run, so we can guess the predictable answer.  I get why it’s there, I get the manifesto’s intent, but this particular rule has no wider application I can consider other than “run a different kind of game”.

10. The playwrights are to be held accountable for the whole of their work.

Ooh, I hate that term.  I don’t like the alternative “larpwright” much more.  Call me a faciliator, or a ref or something like that, because that’s most of what I do.  The creativity belongs to the players as much as the ref, and terms ending in “-wright” feel awfully centralising and self-important.

With that said: the idea here is obviously that the ref should be open to critique.  They should not be on the special creative pedastal, to which the only response is “thanks” (which according to the manifesto, sounds like used to be the case?).  They should seek out feedback about what worked and what didn’t, and they should always strive to do better next time.

This honestly doesn’t sound like anything but obvious common sense to me, and was obvious to me in the LARPs I was running over 15 years ago, before this was written.  I can’t fathom not asking for feedback, not holding oneself accountable for ensuring that the maximum number of players have as much fun as possible.  That’s kind of the reason I run these games, and it kills me when I think players aren’t having fun.

Basically, I don’t need this rule to make me hold myself accountable, but I do think it’s a very good rule to have.

Key ideas to consider for the next game:

  • Another “not very much”.  One inapplicable, one already part of my process.  Still, 3 out of 5 of these posts have definitely given me things to consider directly, and all of them have made me think about the kinds of games I might run in future, looking beyond the toolset I’m currently planning to use.  It’s really only the tenth one that I can completely ignore, and that’s only because I do it anyway.

Dogma 99, Part 4

I’m going to run through three today, in the hope of limiting this set of posts to just five…

6. Superficial action is forbidden.

Another one I would be very interested to try as a device, just not right now.  What they mean by “superficial action” is, basically, violence, or the threat of violence.  They’ve quite accurately homed in the the fact that the metaphor for interpersonal conflict in LARP is, well, actual conflict.  When two characters cannot agree to disagree, their methods for settling their squabble, nine times out of ten, are some form of violence, be it physical or supernatural. I can bang on for a bit about why this is, but it basically comes down to “blah blah, root of hobby, power fantasy, blah blah”.

The point here is that it seems to be pretty much the one and only device for building tension – the threat of violence.  Even when the tension is not about violence itself, in that moment, it’s about something happening that might lead to violence at some future point.  And that’s kinda bad.  There are far more LARPs where the key feature is violence, rather than love or sex, and that’s a whole can of worms in itself, that I’ll save for a future post – this is a topic I’d like to come back to.

I’ve (more or less) done this one, pretty much by accident as it happens, in Testament, a game where the only violence that ever occurred was NPC-on-NPC.  That said, I’m not sure it worked, but I think there were a lot of things going on with that game…

Actually, now I think of it, while I wouldn’t claim to have done it in Restitution, it’s notable that absolutely none of the NPCs had an agenda that revolved around wanting to hurt or do violence to anyone.  Some of them did wind up forced into it, but none of them wanted it.  I suspect that will continue to do for my purposes – I tend to think an NPC whose agenda is actually to do violence is somewhere between stupid and dull.  But overall, I’m not ready to remove “superficial action” from the toolbox just yet, particularly as the current front-runner idea for the setting for the next game is the aftermath of a war.  It would feel thematically inconsistent to remove that kind of threat from this one.

But I think I’d quite like to run a short game at some point where violence is specifically off the table as a device.

7. LARP inspired by tabletop role-playing games are not accepted.

Yeah, look, just no.  I like pulpy supernatural games.  I may not be running a game entirely as per any published tabletop rulebooks, but I like them, and it would be disingenuous to claim I’m not inspired by them.  I get why the rule is on the manifesto – it’s about breaking the form out of it’s constraints, but honestly I think 15 years on those constraints have been well broken, and I’m OK with running what I like.

8. No object shall be used to represent another object.

This is a lot easier to do if you’re running one offs, with no violence or supernatural elements.  That said: the players in my games do pretty well for creating props, and I love them for it.  But as I keep saying, “doesn’t suit the kind of games I run”.  While many characters are unarmed, some of my players like to arm their characters (and as I said above, I don’t think I’ll be banning it), and I’m not having real weapons in my time in, thanks.  I’ll take foam representations, thanks.  That said, I m usually pretty strict on the idea that the representative object must solidly resemble the item it’s representing, unless that’s totally physically impossible.

Key ideas to consider for the next game:

  • Er, not a lot, I don’t think.  It feels a bit like these posts are starting to degenerate into me justifying why I can’t run a Dogma 99 LARP, which wasn’t the plan, but there we are.  This set, though, do make me interested in running some one-offs with some or all of these rules, particularly the absolute prohibition on violence or threat of as a dramatic device.  I really do think that’s strong.  Just not for the next game.

Dogma 99, Part 3

4. All secrecy is forbidden.

This one interests me in an abstract sort of way.  I’m not sure it’d suit the needs of a serial game, because I think/hope that part of the enjoyment for players in games I run is finding out what’s going on in play, and reacting to it in the moment.  Additionally, I often change things (from small to large) because a player says something that gives me a better idea – I would regard it as failing the players not to do that, in fact.  And it’s not that I mind admitting that I’ve changed things, but it’d be kind of weird to be constantly going to players saying “that thing I said was true three months ago isn’t any more – I’ve had a better idea”.

That said: I am definitely enjoying the less-secret more-collaborative design process for this game.  Honestly, it’s not even that my previous design process was secret so much as I just didn’t make things as clear and explicit as I could/should have.

It’s also a bit weird coming to this one, when I’m reading stuff written four and five years later, when Immersionism is clearly seen as a primary goal for a lot of people, because actually, I think it’s a very Dramatist device, rather than an Immersionist one – players knowing any plans that might exist in advance will, I think automatically cause them to shape their playing to the plans, rather than having the plans change in the face of their playing, which is my preferred option.

That said, for a one-off type game, I think it’s an interesting idea.

5. After the event has begun, the playwrights are not allowed to influence it.

I really don’t like the term “playwright” here, but moving on…

It’s a very interesting idea.  Restitution definitely increased my comfort level with the notion.  Again, a difference between the one-off events this is largely concerned with, and the serial games I run, is that it’s hypothetically possible for one or two players to take actions that render the setting unplayable – the narrative equivalent of setting off a nuke in the middle of play, and in the past, I’ve seen it as part of my responsibilities as ref (the rather less grandiose term that I prefer) to prevent that from happening.  At a certain point in Restitution, I decided to simply say “it is completely possible that someone will do something that will end the story/game tonight”, and roll with it.  And of course, the game did not end (in fact, it ran a few months longer than I thought it would).

I came to see the action of yelling “time in” as an act of surrendering control over the overall narrative.  “Anything could happen in the next three hours!”  And in a serial game where the ref is more or less “in charge” of everything that happens in downtime, that’s quite a powerful thing.

This would all probably surprise many of the players, because I know I played a number of NPCs that loomed pretty large, but 80% of the time, I just tried to play them as them, rather than use them to steer action, and honestly, I hated it every time I felt the need to use them to “steer”.  So I intend to be more relaxed about this in the next game.

That said, I don’t think I’m going to go without a “host” NPC.  My reasoning is partly that I personally find it weirdly inhibitive, when I’m playing, to have someone in the IC space who is not a character who can be interacted with, and I find that even a token NPC role solves that.  The other thing is purely personal: it’s actually quite boring to just sit and watch, unable to interact with anything.  The interaction doesn’t need to be meaningful or game affecting, it just needs to be on the level of “able to open mouth, speak, and be heard”.

Key ideas to consider for the next game:

  1. Advertise my willingness to answer most questions during the span of the game, to anyone who wants to know (and who has a reason beyond “I’m just curious”, maybe), but reserve the right to keep some things up my sleeve?
  2. I like having a host NPC to play, but I’m going to design a very different style of NPC for the next thing – a subservient, service-staff type role, I think.  Something that exists to be given instructions.

Dogma 99, Part 2

There are two items in the manifesto that I think are driving at the same thing from slightly different angles, so I’m going to cover them off together.

2. There shall be no “main plot”.

As anyone who has played in my games will attest, this is one I’m disposed to pretty much reject outright – not because it’s always a bad idea, but because it does not suit the style of games I like to run at all.  The games I like to run can be summed up as “serial, about two years long, ending when the plot resolves”.

I cut my LARPing teeth on various large scale Vampire LARPs where there was no main plot, merely a series of events stretching on and on forever. (The ref team might well have been writing “main plot” on a “right this one is done what shall we do now?” basis, but it’s not the same as one single coherent narrative – the games kept going after each plot resolved)  Nothing ended.  No complete stories were told.  Well, no, that’s not true.  Individual characters’ more-or-less-complete stories were told, ending when they died or stepped off the stage.  But they weren’t unified by anything, and the games were (much) weaker for it.

I think I may have swallowed Alan Moore’s introduction to The Dark Knight Returns whole, at an impressionable age, because I very passionately believe that what gives stories power is their ending.  If you don’t bring the curtain down, in a clear and tidy manner that wraps everything up that needs to be wrapped up (although bear in mind that not everything does) and then stops, then you are Doing It Wrong.

This doesn’t mean I’m blind to the flaws of Big Plot. I have been toying with trying a different structure for the Next Thing, one that unifies the game around a series of smaller plots across an express theme, rather than having one big plot, but honestly, I don’t think it will solve the problem that this is designed to prevent – which is the idea that some events in the game are more “important” than others, and that some characters get more to do that others because they are more influential within those events (and then they get more to do because they were influential in those events, creating a vicious cycle).

But I think I’m willing to live with that.  “Main plot” unifies the game, gives a sense of forward motion and a sense of completeness when it ends, in a way that simply running half a dozen thematically connected (but narratively disconnected) stories just won’t do as well.  Doing that does mean, though, that I need to find ways to make sure no characters feel more important than others.

3. No character shall only be a supporting part.

This is pretty connected to the number 2, above, and one I don’t disagree with at all.  Every character should be the star of their own story, which should feed the greater story.  I don’t like PCs that are created as double acts, unless it’s very clearly a double act of equals.  I try and make sure that everyone that wants to get something to do, gets something to do, and that it’s all equally important.  I’m not always successful, I know that, but that’s certainly the aim.

Key ideas to consider for the next game:

  1. How to avoid the idea/appearance that some characters are more important by virtue of their interaction with External Plot (or any other reason).
  2. A multi plot-arc structure?

Dogma 99, Part 1.

So I’m working my way through slightly over a decade’s worth of writing about LARP, and while I know a lot of it is old hat, a decade and more later, it’s probably still of value to me to read it, think about it, and write about my responses to to it.  Some of it I’d already read and thought about before now, but I think writing about it will help me clarify what’s useful.  I decided I’d start with arguably the oldest thing: The Dogma 99 Manifesto, which is one of the things I’d read before – I suspect most LARPers have.  I’m interested to see that my perspectives on it have shifted quite a lot in the period since I first read it.

Obviously, it’s taking Lars von Trier’s Dogme ’95 rules as pretty heavy inspiration, and should be viewed in that light.  The Dogma 99 Manifesto, and a lot of the writing that followed it are obviously extreme statements of position, intended to provoke debate, and inspire people to try and do something new, different, and arguably “purer”, without being bound by a lot of the conventions that came before.  Basically: it’s not meant to be take 100% seriously.  Thank god.

One of the things that strikes me about it is that my first thought is “I don’t think I’d want to run or play a Dogma 99 game” and yet when I come to the dissection of each individual point, I find it quite hard to disagree with at least the intention of each of them.

I’ll probably take on one or two of it’s points per post for a bit, because there’s a lot to cover.

I’m going to close out these posts by noting a few things I want to consider as a result of them, when designing the next game.  It doesn’t follow that everything I want to think about will automatically become part of the finished game, this is just so I’ve got a short record of things to think about at a later date.

1. It is forbidden to create action by writing it into the past history of a character or the event.

I’m obviously not disposed to like this one. We just completed a successful two-year game that made use of the fact that several of the characters had decades and in some cases, centuries, of history with one another.  There were buried conflicts all over the shop.  And I suspect the same will be true of the next game.  I do not like the idea of a game that does not draw on background to generate conflict, because I like the depth and richness that a backstory gives.

But the spirit in which this rule is intended is one I really agree with: the only action that matters occurs within the context of the LARP time-in (on-camera, if you like).  Everything you need to know to understand the conflicts of the LARP must be shown at the time-in, and not in a “expository dialogue” way.

Part of the reason I disagree with this, of course, is that I like LARP as a serial form, rather than a one shot.  So there’s always going to be a context in which some of the action for any given session will be firmly rooted “off camera” as it were – because it took place in a previous time in.  And once you’re there, what’s wrong with adding a few similar kinds of conflict that are set up in backstory?

But there’s a key flaw in the medium: the only conflicts from backstory that are likely to play out are those between players.  Where a player writes an unresolved NPC conflict into their backstory, I have two choices: find a way to make that conflict relevant to more than just them, or, more probably, ignore it.  And unfortunately, if I pick one player’s backstory NPCs over another’s then it creates a sense that that particular character is more important than others, which is not a desirable outcome.

And having said that I don’t mind a bit of backstory, I think it’s important in a serial LARP to remember the same rules that exist in most serial fiction: every episode is someone’s first. If someone new can’t walk in and reasonably quickly hook in to what’s going on, with am absolute minimum of IC exposition, then the LARP isn’t working.  I know I’ve been guilty in the past of running games where there was a reasonably standard “new player” experience – a new character walks into the room, and is immediately introduced to a couple of key other characters, who proceed to infodump on them until they’re caught up.  It’s not the worst thing in the world, but I wonder if it can be done better?

Key ideas to consider for the next game:

  1. No unresolved PC-NPC conflicts in backstory prior to the first time in.  If PC-NPC conflict develops in the course of uptime, that’s acceptable, but not necessarily desirable.
  2. Every session is someone’s first, but every first session should be different.  Design so that new characters can be caught up on anything they need to know to access the game in a variety of ways, depending on player preference.